74-Year-Old Woman Exonerated in the 1987 Death of Her 4-Year-Old Great-Niece


 After 27 years in prison, Joyce Watkins of Tennessee will finally have her good name cleared. The 74-year-old and her former boyfriend Charlie Dunn were exonerated last week after being wrongfully convicted of murdering her 4-year-old great-niece, Brandi Jessie, in 1987.

It all started when Watkins and Dunn went to pick up Brandi in Kentucky back on June 26, 1987.

Brandi had been staying with another great-aunt, Rose Williams, when the couple went to get her, Law & Crime reported.

The next morning, Brandi was unresponsive, a report filed with the Davidson County Criminal Court that was obtained by CNN stated. Watkins and Dunn brought her to Nashville Memorial Hospital, where doctors determined she’d suffered from severe vaginal injury and head trauma. By the next day, Brandi was declared dead.

A medical examiner, Dr. Gretel Harlan, concluded that Brandi had sustained her severe injuries during the nine hours she was with Watkins and Dunn.

By 1988, Watkins and Dunn had been convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated rape. The two were granted parole in 2015, but Dunn died before he was able to leave jail. Watkins eventually turned to the Tennessee Innocence Project and the Davidson County District Attorney's office to help clear her name and posthumously clear Dunn’s.

"We got this case because she (Joyce) came to us," Jason Gichner, senior legal counsel with the Tennessee Innocence Project, told CNN. "She just showed up at the office and said, 'Let me tell you my story. I need your help.'"

They filed a report on November 10, 2021, asking that Watkins' and Dunn's convictions be vacated.

Several factors that were overlooked when the case first went to trial, according to Law & Crime. In fact, the Conviction Review Unit filed a report in November that heavily criticized the investigation for failing to look into other possible causes of the 4-year-old's fatal injuries, specifically what happened to her while in the care of great-aunt Rose Williams.

Williams was only supposed to have Brandi in her care for two weeks before she was meant to be returned home to her mother in Georgia, but instead, she was there for two months.

“Ms. Williams’s testified during the two months [Brandi] was in her care, the child suffered a variety of injuries and exhibited numerous abnormal behaviors,” the Conviction Review Unit wrote in its report. “This included testimony that [Brandi] was found drinking out of a toilet bowl and that she began spontaneously vomiting at the dinner table.”

Williams also claimed that Brandi lost consciousness twice while in her care.

According to the report, Williams said that one time she found Brandi unresponsive on the floor and the girl allegedly had peanut butter lodged in her airway. A neighbor suggested taking Brandi to the hospital because of the threat of brain damage, but Williams never sought medical assistance.

In another incident, the girl fell down the stairs and was reportedly unconscious when Williams found her. They were on the way to the hospital when Williams’ daughter pointed out that Brandi had started talking again, prompting them to turn around and go home.

She later told the Conviction Review Unit that she didn’t have a reason for failing to take Brandi to the hospital after her fall but claimed she didn’t have enough gas to take her to the hospital without stopping.

Williams also claimed that Brandi had daily urinary incontinence, which caused chafing at her private parts.

The Kentucky Department of Social Services was also called in to check in on the girl after reports that she was being abused while in Williams’ care.

“Ms. Williams told the social worker [Brandi]\ had already returned to Georgia,” the Conviction Review Unit wrote. “Ms. Williams later admitted this was a lie and that [Brandi] was still in her care.”

Williams also told the social worker that the girl’s injuries were “playground injuries.”

The girl’s mother said she was unaware of the behavior Williams spoke of and that it didn’t exist before the girl was sent to visit her great-aunt.

She also claimed she didn’t learn of her daughter’s injuries or the visit from the social worker until after Brandi died, according to Law & Crime.

It was reportedly Williams who became more and more insistent that Watkins come and pick up Brandi. When Watkins finally agreed and was bringing Brandi home, she quickly realized that things were off.

She found blood in Brandi’s underwear and then called Williams and told her that Brandi needed help. She was told to wait for Williams to come pick up Brandi, but when Williams never arrived, Watkins took the girl to the hospital, which was when doctors found her head trauma and severe vaginal injuries.

According to the Conviction Review Unit, this was all damning evidence that was otherwise ignored when Watkins and Dunn were arrested.

“It is absurd to ignore the documented ongoing abuse and neglect of [Brandi] that took place in the two months prior to her presence in Nashville and instead to place blame on the two people who had [Brandi] in their care for less than 9 hours,” the unit's report stated. “Two people, who within 1.5 hours, notified [Brandi’s] grandmother of a medical problem and the need for [Brandi] to receive medical care.”

Included in the report filed by Watkins in November was a statement from Dr. Shipla Reddy, who criticized the medical examiner for pointing the finger at Watkins and Dunn.

Reddy wrote that Harlan’s "methodology for dating the head injury based upon a lack of histiocytic response in the brain tissue is not a legitimate method for dating pediatric head trauma," CNN reported.

Reddy also accused Harlan of failing to come forward with her error in methodology for years after the case went to trial.

Thankfully, Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Angelita Blackshear Dalton agreed that Watkins and Dunn had been wrongfully convicted. On January 12, she granted Watkins' motion to have the charges against her dismissed.

“Fortunately, wrongful convictions are rare, but when they happen, they are real tragedies,” District Attorney General Glenn Funk said in court on January 12, as reported by Law & Crime, adding this:

“In this case, for 25 years, two innocent people languished in the penitentiary and the real perpetrator has never had to face justice. We cannot give back years to Ms. Watkins and Charlie Dunn but thanks to the tenacity of Ms. Watkins, the advocacy of the Tennessee Innocence Project, and the diligence of our Conviction Review Unit, and the wisdom of this Court, we can restore their dignity. Joyce Watkins and Charlie Dunn are innocent and on behalf of the State of Tennessee, I move this Court to dismiss these charges."

Dunn’s daughter, Jackie, told CNN she was happy that her father has since been cleared of his conviction — even if he isn’t here to see it.

"I wish my daddy was here to witness this day," she said. "He knew he was innocent, he knew he did not commit those crimes.”

Sunny Eaton, who works with the district attorney’s office, told CNN that not only was Watkins the first Black woman to ever be exonerated in the state, but she was also only the third woman to be exonerated in the state’s history.

As of this reporting, it’s unclear how or if Watkins and Dunn’s family will be compensated for the many years they wrongly served time in jail, but for now, Watkins just seems happy to have finally had her day in court.

"I thank all the people for their prayers and helping me get out of this mess which has cost me half of my life for nothing,” she said. “But I'll get over it."

 Source: cafemom.com

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